As jobs move online and companies consider keeping some work remote even after the coronavirus pandemic, Hawaii is seizing on the prospect of a work-from-anywhere economy to soften the blow of prolonged tourism job losses.

The state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism is developing a series of initiatives to match unemployed Hawaii residents with remote jobs and to parlay the rise of remote work flexibility as a means to allow kamaaina living elsewhere to return home.

There is hope that these efforts could slow the steady outmigration of residents chasing career opportunities to the mainland.

Kanu Hawaii Executive Director Keone Kealoha sits inside the Hub Coworking Hawaii space located in Kakaako.
Kanu Hawaii Executive Director Keone Kealoha works out of Hub Coworking Hawaii in Honolulu several times per week. Pandemic-related revenue losses, however, have forced the nonprofit organization to scale back its use of the Hub. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

DBEDT is also supporting Movers & Shakas, a pilot project unveiled by a group of local business and community leaders last week to lure remote workers with mainland-based employment to choose Hawaii as their work-from-home location.

Movers & Shakas seeks to build a cohort of 50 digital nomads who commit to working from Hawaii for at least six months. Participants will receive free roundtrip airfare to Honolulu, discounts on lodging at five Waikiki resorts and access to curated recreational and cultural activities.

“It can lead to a new version of tourism,” said Scott Murakami, DBEDT’s economic development coordinator.

A rush of new residents with steady paychecks and remote work flexibility could help the local economy recover, reverse the brain drain and recoup some of the devastating losses to the state’s tax base.

But DBEDT’s main interest in the program is mining the participants for data.

How difficult is the move from the mainland to Hawaii? What compels remote workers to move to Hawaii — and what prompts them to leave or stay?

What industries do they work in? Where are their employers located? What skill sets do they have?

Those were among the questions as DBEDT kicked in nearly $100,000 in state funding to survey the Movers & Shakas participants. The answers could help inform the department’s larger efforts to attract more remote work opportunities for current and former Hawaii residents — a goal accelerated by the pandemic.

Before COVID-19, Hawaii had roughly 38,000 remote workers, according to DBEDT Director Mike McCartney.

“I think it’s reasonable to try to double that number by the next year with a healthy mix of Hawaii residents and new residents that can create an innovative economy going forward,” he said.

‘Jobs Are Going To Shift’

Movers & Shakas is designed to induct newcomers into Hawaii society and culture, but it will also consider kamaaina applicants who are employed elsewhere but aching to return home.

The ideal applicant is someone who has a demonstrated willingness to give back to their community, said Jason Higa, chief executive officer of FCH Enterprises, the parent company of Zippy’s restaurants, and one of the program’s founders.

The program sets an expectation that participants will lend their unique professional skills to a local nonprofit organization. The idea is to build invested, conscientious new community members through participation.

As Hawaii holds tight to its reputation as a relatively safe place to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic, people with the ability to work remotely are leaving behind virus hotspots and transporting their lives to the islands. Hawaii leaders are marketing to this demographic. 

“We’re really trying to create a connection between the cohorts and the Hawaii community that we feel will help these cohorts to understand and to really experience Hawaii more than if they had just come here to enjoy the weather or the beaches or the hiking trails,” Higa said.

Beyond the financial contribution from DBEDT, Movers & Shakas is funded by nearly a dozen businesses and nonprofits — Zippy’s restaurants, Central Pacific Bank, Hawaii Executive Collaborative, Island Holdings Inc. and Inkinen Executive Search among them.

Higa said these groups share an interest in discovering how an influx of digital workers to Hawaii could be a boon to the economy.

If Hawaii can attract a crop of highly skilled new residents, Hub Coworking Hawaii Co-founder George Yarbrough said he believes the whole state could benefit.

But he worries that a tidal wave of new talent could unintentionally displace current Hawaii residents.

The Hub, which is partnering with the Movers & Shakas program to connect participants with coworking desks, already has experienced a dramatic population shift as established residents pause their memberships due to virus fears, career setbacks or new household demands brought on by remote schooling and disruptions to child care.

Meanwhile, new arrivals from the mainland are moving in and taking their places, Yarbrough said.

“It’s almost like we have a whole new community now,” Yarbrough said.

In January the Honolulu coworking spaces The Hub, Box Jelly and WaiWai Collective will partner to launch a cultural immersion program for remote workers who moved to Hawaii during the pandemic.

The goal is to welcome new residents and help them gain an understanding of Hawaii’s unique geography, slang, hazards, history and values. There will be social and professional networking opportunities and volunteer activities, such as wetland taro farming.

McCartney said the state must strike a balance between recruiting new digital workers to move to Hawaii and matching current residents with online employment.

“Jobs are going to shift, and I don’t want people to move away because there’s not enough direct employment for them,” McCartney said.

Coming Soon: 2,000 Remote Jobs

Reversing Hawaii’s brain drain will take more than remote work flexibility and a welcome mat.

As the pandemic moves jobs, schools and health care services online, thousands of rural homes and businesses still lack broadband access.

coronavirus, covid-19, quarantine, isolation, mental health, anxiety, loneliness, anisa wiseman
NAMI Hawaii Program Director Anisa Wiseman works from her Pupukea home on Oahu with her canine companion Umi. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

In November, the state published a plan on how it will try to bolster broadband infrastructure across the islands — a giant and costly undertaking that could take many years to actualize.

Beyond a lack of well-paying jobs, the departure of educated, highly skilled Hawaii residents for opportunities elsewhere is spurred by the exorbitant cost of just about everything, from gas and groceries to child care and real estate.

“One of the challenges that remote work won’t fix is the cost of living,” Higa said. “But if someone were working remotely for a mainland employer and earning a level of compensation that might truly allow them to raise their family in Hawaii, could that be an emerging opportunity?”

That’s something DBEDT is trying to assess.

As soon as late December the department plans to launch a new program in partnership with the state Labor Department’s Workforce Development Council that would match up to 2,000 out-of-work residents with remote employment.

The matchmaking would take place at the county-operated American Job Centers. The state has already entered into a contract with a private online employment aggregator to facilitate the job placements.

“I think it’s a way of exporting Hawaii’s knowledge by having people live here and contribute to the tax base but work for an employer located somewhere else,” McCartney said.

DEBDT does not have a target number for how many remote jobs it thinks Hawaii can ultimately support or how many jobs the state expects will not immediately return as the economy slowly recovers.

Hawaii’s Changing Economy”  series is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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